Monthly Archives: January 2009

My Two Cents Worth on Daves’ BIRD OF PARADISE

I’m glad that Dave Kehr’s recent column in the New York Times about the neglected and underrated Delmer Daves has spurred some interest in Daves on his web site, but disappointed that no one except for me has thought to bring up Daves’ 1951 remake of King Vidor’s 1932 Bird of Paradise. It’s true that I have some personal investment in this kitschy South Sea island tale, having written the first chapter of my autobiographical Moving Places: A Life at the Movies (1980; 2nd ed., 1995) about its significance for me. But the second chapter of the same book, a much longer one, is devoted to that same year’s Doris Day musical On Moonlight Bay, and I’d never dream of making any special case for that movie.

By contrast, what seems memorable about the 1951 Bird of Paradise, apart from its lush Technicolor, is a certain tragic sense of thwarted utopian and liberal multiculturism, similar in some ways to what can be found in Daves’ previous feature, also with Debra Paget and Jeff Chandler (and made at the same studio, Fox), Broken Arrow (1950). I suppose this could be written off as some sort of camp in both movies, but personally I find this less of a hoot than Daves’ penultimate feature, Youngblood Hawke (1964), which Dave describes as “interesting” and, like some of the posters on his site, seems to take relatively seriously.… Read more »

Leos Carax’s MERDE

For me the most interesting “ten best” list included in the January-February 2009 issue of Film Comment is the dozen titles offered by my favorite Japanese film critic, Shigehiko Hasumi. And what’s especially interesting about his list is the inclusion of Leos Carax’s Merde – the middle episode in the three-part feature Tokyo! (2008), flanked by contributions from Michel Gondry and Joon-ho Bong. Decidedly over-the-top in both theme and style as well as execution, and starring former circus acrobat Denis Lavant, who also plays the lead role in Carax’s first three features — an actor who’s surely even more important to this filmmaker’s work than Jean-Pierre Léaud was to the early features of Truffaut — Merde is a provocation and something of an anomaly, even for someone as eclectic as Carax. (It’s also his first film of any length since his 1999 Pola X, his only major film without Lavant.)

Clearly inspired, at least in its opening stretches, by Jean-Louis Barrault in Jean Renoir’s odd Jekyll-and-Hyde adaptation, Le Testament du docteur Cordelier (1961) [see below], Lavant plays a monster who emerges from the Tokyo sewers to wreak random and violent havoc on Tokyo pedestrians until he gets brought to trial, where he gets defended by an equally strident French lawyer (Jean-François Balmer, in a performance that’s almost as extravagant as Lavant’s).… Read more »

Vanity Frame Enlargement (FOUR NIGHTS OF A DREAMER)

The reproduction is grainy, but I’m still a novice when it comes to importing film frames to this site, so this will have to do. For friends and acquaintances who want to know when and where I appear as an extra in Robert Bresson’s Quatre Nuits d’un Rêveur (Four Nights of a Dreamer, 1972), here I am. This is right towards the tail end of the penultimate sequence, and that’s me on the left, in the suede jacket and the orange-red sweater, carrying something–I no longer remember what –under my right arm. I had a moustache in those days. It was a fall evening, as I recall, not too far from the Palais de Chaillot, and a bit on the chilly side.

The following night, which was the film’s final night of shooting, I wound up on a bateau mouche with Bresson and the small crew and a small performing bossa nova band and singer who play a major part in the film’s most memorable sequence, but this time it was only as an offscreen spectator. [1/17/09]… Read more »

WALTZ WITH BASHIR

I wouldn’t call this a masterpiece, but it’s certainly honorable and original. I suspect that a major reason why Ari Folman’s animated nightmare has been picking up some sizable awards–best picture by the National Society of Film Critics, best foreign-language film at the Golden Globes–is that it does something that the mainstream U.S. news media more or less refuses to do. It allows the American public to express its disgust and horror for what’s currently happening in Gaza. In a similar way, albeit far more indirectly, roughly two year ago, Clint Eastwood’s Letters from Iwo Jima allowed many of us to cope a little better with some of our rage and sorrow about the occupation of Iraq. And as I noted at the time in my capsule review for that film, Waltz with Bashir also suggests that distinguishing between meaningful and senseless wars may be a civilian luxury. [1/12/09]… Read more »

Recommended Reading: AND THEN THERE WAS NO ONE

The third and most enjoyable of Gilbert Adair’s Evadne Mount mysteries, just published in the U.K., is by all counts the least satisfying or conventional as a mystery—even though Adair, who features himself as first-person narrator, largely compensates for this by shoe-horning in a rather brilliant pastiche of a Sherlock Holmes tale in the fourth chapter, roughly a third of the way through.

Adair is a master of pastiche whose best-known previous novels (and even one of his non-fiction books, Myths and Memories) all derive from literary models, so that Alice Through the Needle’s Eye is a brilliant Lewis Carroll spinoff, The Key of the Tower is an hommage to Alfred Hitchcock, and even his two best-known books, both made into films, The Dreamers (known in an earlier version as The Holy Innocents) and Love and Death on Long Island, are derived respectively from Jean Cocteau’s Les Enfants Terribles and Thomas Mann’s Death in Venice.  The Evadne Mount novels, the first two of which are The Act of Roger Murgatroyd and A Mysterious Affair of Style, are all to varying degrees nods to Agatha Christie, to whom the latest is dedicated, but the postmodernist tricks and games with form, genre, and language tend to overtake the mystery elements—especially in the third, which gradually evolves into a rather merciless and scathing autocritique by Adair of his own literary narcissism as voiced by lady detective Mount, his own creation.… Read more »

The End-of-Film-Criticism Industry (2009)

This was published as my ninth one-page column in  Cahiers du Cinéma España; it ran in their January 2009 issue (No. 19). — J.R.

It’s by no means unusual for a “retired” film scholar such as myself to find more work as a freelancer since my retirement late last February than I did for most of the previous two decades as a staff reviewer for the Chicago Reader. Two of my contemporaries, both former academics and both friends of mine — the slightly younger David Bordwell and the slightly older James Naremore — have told me that they’re busier nowadays than they were when they were teaching. But what seems more surprising, at least to me, is how much of my time recently has been consumed by my participation in panels and symposia, both in print and in person, about the alleged death of film criticism. The October issue of Sight and Sound is full of ruminations on this subject, under such headings as “Who needs critics?” and “critics on critics”; so is the Autumn issue of Cineaste, where the stated topic is “Film Criticism in the Age of the Internet: A Critical Symposium”. A week from now, I will be flying from Chicago to the New York Film Festival to speak on a panel called “Film Criticism in Crisis?” (“Are we now facing the Death of Film Criticism — or its rebirth?”), appearing along with such print and Internet figures as Aquarello (the Internet pseudonym of Pascual Espiritu), Emmanuel Burdeau, David Hudson, Kent Jones, and Pablo Suarez.… Read more »